Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Why limit Anzac marketing outrage to Woolworths?

Many groups now exploit the commercialisation of Anzac memories, even the RSL.

Consumers have made sure that Woolworths will never forget their botched attempt to cash in on the Anzac centenary. During the lead up to Anzac Day, the supermarket giant launched a website that invited Australians to share memories of war veterans and upload a commemorative profile picture to social media. The site included a meme generator, which branded images of war dead with the Woolworths logo and tagline, "Fresh In Our Memories" - a staggeringly misguided pun evoking their corporate slogan "The Fresh Food People".

The landing page for Woolworths' short-lived campaign.

A Woolworths' branded commemorative profile picture.

Like the event it claimed to commemorate, the ill-conceived campaign resulted in a bloody confrontation and ensuing retreat. The backlash on Woolworths' Facebook page was immediate. According to one commenter, "Trying to cash in on the memory of the Anzacs is possibly the trashiest thing I've seen in a very long time." Another said the campaign reflected "Inconceivably poor judgment!", adding "Not everything in the world needs to be appropriated for commercial gain".

Twitter hashtags #brandzacday and #freshinourmemories began trending throughout Australia as consumers hijacked social media to ridicule the brand for exploiting war memory. Barely three hours after the campaign launched, Woolworths took the site down and issued an apology.

There was even a Hitler "Downfall" meme, adapted an iconic scene from the 2004 movie.

Despite Woolworths' assertion that the initiative was "not a marketing campaign", there is little doubt the site was designed to produce branded consumer-generated content, and encourage Australians to share this content on their social networks. It is likely that Woolworths aspired to tap into public sentiment before Anzac Day – with the aim of generating likes, brand engagement , and a strong emotional connection with consumers.

How did Australia's largest supermarket chain, supported by an army of digital marketing and social media experts, get it so wrong?

Woolworths certainly isn't the first Australian brand to exploit dead diggers for profit. Since the 1990s, marketers have recognised the growing cultural capital attached to the Anzac legend, and the benefits of aligning their brands with the aspirational national mythology.

This ambition is not new. Australian traders began to market Anzac-branded products and portray Anzac veterans in their advertising during the Great War. Astonishingly, the federal government introduced regulations protecting the word "Anzac" from use in any trade business calling or profession in 1916, enacting legislation in 1921.

However, modern marketers have approached the task with an enthusiasm and sophistication lacked by their early 20th-century counterparts. At the same time, state agencies, such as the Department of Veterans' Affairs (DVA), and special interest groups, such as the Returned and Services League (RSL) and Legacy, have recognised the rising political capital associated with the Anzac tradition, the benefits of promoting it to as many people as possible, and the potential for its proliferation through commercial activity aimed at a mass market.

The Woolworths campaign was slammed by Minister for Veteran Affairs Michael Ronaldson who said, "I have been very rigorous in ensuring that we protect the dignity of the word Anzac and that it is not used for purely commercial purposes."  RSL president Ken Doolan described the campaign as "insensitive" and an "unfortunate error".  Yet these bodies have embraced commercial activity for years.

While the federal government and veterans' organisations traditionally frowned upon Anzac commodification before the 1990s, they now enthusiastically sanction certain types of commercial activity, while prohibiting others. The RSL in particular  has pioneered innovative new commercial partnerships and product endorsements.

There is no doubt that veterans' organisations have pursued initiatives with the very best of intentions; to raise money to support war veterans and their dependents, promote their organisations, and the Anzac tradition. But at what cost?

Commemoration and commerce have become increasingly intertwined, and the Anzac industry is often more concerned with appealing to a mass market of consumers in their leisure hours, than with historical understanding.

Australians who wish to remember the Great War can buy mass-produced Anzac biscuits, "raise a glass" of Victoria Bitter beer, and enjoy commemorative sporting spectacles such as the AFL Anzac Day Clash.

In 2015, Australians can also attend Camp Gallipoli, a music festival-style commemorative spectacular, with its own range of merchandise available exclusively from Target stores. Proceeds from merchandise will be directed to the Camp Gallipoli foundation, and distributed to the RSL and Legacy, however goods navigate a supply chain of manufacturers, marketers, distributors; all of whom will benefit financially from the initiative.

One can only imagine how Gallipoli veterans would respond to the products within the range, which include faux wool rugs, pillows and rosemary-scented candles, and trivialise and sanitise the horrors of war.

Bizarrely, the fact that commercial activity incorporates a fundraising element has become an accepted defence against claims of exploitation. Neither the Department of Veterans' Affairs, nor the RSL has demonstrated recognition of the benefits that commercial firms receive from association with the Anzac tradition, in the form of increased revenue and brand building.

Consumer culture does not necessarily trivialise war memory but the use of Anzac for brand-building purposes often results in simplified, sanitised and celebratory visions of our wartime past that reveal more about ourselves than the Anzacs. Why is our outrage limited to Woolworths' tacky marketing campaign? Perhaps their real blunder was not in appropriating Anzac to build their brand, but by doing it so badly.

This is an adapted version of an article which originally appeared in The Age on 15 April 2015.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Dead men talking: can ‘zombie’ Anzacs enrich our understanding of war?

The cast of NewsCorp's Anzac Live

This year, Australians can do more than just remember the Gallipoli Campaign — they can re-live it. Two rival Australian media networks have resurrected long-dead Diggers to tweet “real time” updates of the campaign. No longer fighting for empire, the Anzacs have been enlisted to help media brands battle for social media dominance during the lead-up to Anzac Day.

News Corp’s AnzacLive encourages Australians to interact directly with 10 Diggers on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The Anzacs generally reply “in their own words”, with responses crafted from fragments of diaries and letters, a pursuit for authenticity that often results in a slightly unsettling, zombie-like tone. The Diggers themselves have been “branded” in a style evoking a reality TV show, with a cast of “characters” including an “unlikely ladies’ man”, a “tough joker” and a “dead-set Aussie legend”. News Corp has invested heavily in the project, which was planned and executed with the input of historians and involves a staff of 30 journalists over 12 months of planning.

Not to be outdone, ABC News has launched @ABCNews1915, which aggregates tweets from 60 Twitter accounts including Digger Thomas Drane (@TomDrane1915), nurse Alice Ross-King (@AliceRK_1915), prime minister Andrew Fisher (@AFisherPM_1915), and Turkish military commander Mustafa Ataturk (@MKAtaturk1915). The ambitious project is affiliated with the Australian War Memorial, National Library of Australia and Australian Museum of Democracy. In contrast to AnzacLive, the project is more concerned with creating a “real-time” narrative of the campaign based on first-hand accounts than encouraging interaction with historical “characters”. Tweets, which have been vetted by historians, are derived from an impressive range of sources including letters, diaries, Hansard reports and newspapers.

It’s not the first time that Australian media outlets have leveraged Anzac Day to boost their readership. From the 1990s, newspapers began to offer glossy historical lift-outs, commemorative coins and even free Anzac biscuits in an effort to increase circulation figures on Anzac Day. In the digital world, where content is king, attention is the only currency that matters. Anzac Day has been commodified, with letters, diaries and photographs transformed into online “content”, the commercial appeal of which will be measured by web analytics and assessed by digital-marketing teams.

Do these projects enrich our understanding of the Great War or do they trivialise and sanitise war memory for a popular audience?

The Facebook pages of AnzacLive Diggers have been used to generate traffic for related News Corp coverage. While some articles are informative, others, such as “Underbellydance: How a brush with the white slave trade sparked the first battle of the Anzacs” represent blatant clickbait. The staggeringly misleading article manages to rewrite the history of the “Battle of the Wazzir”, a shameful Anzac riot through Cairo involving looting, arson and violence, into “a bit of harmless larrikinism” at worst, and a heroic “rescue” at best — based on a single unverified source.

Indeed, News Corp has pulled out all stops to generate viral content, with colourised historic images, infographics, videos and a BuzzFeed-style quiz — “Find out who you’d have been in WW1”. The quiz assumes an enthusiastic willingness to enlist and matches readers with a Digger hero (conveniently sidestepping alternative roles such as conscientious objector or grieving mother). Granted, an alternative version, “Find out who you’d be after the Great War”, with results including “unemployed”, “disabled”, or “dead” is likely to have far less viral appeal.

In contrast, most tweets from @ABCNews1915 link directly back to the original historical source online, offering a gateway into Australian cultural institutions, and providing the first step on a journey of discovery rather than an end point.

Both projects claim to offer “uncensored” access to the thoughts and feelings of Aussie Diggers. However, primary sources, such as diaries and letters, require historical context and interpretation. For example, most personal diaries published for popular consumption during or directly after the Great War were exceedingly patriotic. Letters home from the front were often censored by the military, or by writers themselves in an effort to shield relatives at home from the horrors of war.

Whose voices are missing from the conversation? AnzacLive includes a female “character”, nurse Alice Ross-King, but prioritises those on the battlefield rather than the home front. Both projects risk overstating the role Australians played in the campaign, which involved troops from Britain, France, India and, of course, New Zealand (lest we forget).

In focusing on Gallipoli, the bungled military campaign-turned-bloody national baptism, tweets and Facebook status updates offer a partial glimpse of the Great War as a whole. “Real time” updates of Australia’s “glorious” entry to war risk evoking the furious imperial chest-beating of 1915, rather than the dark reality and tragic aftermath of a long war that divided Australia.

Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the ambitions of AnzacLive and @ABCNews1915 extend beyond simply increasing website traffic, interactivity and engagement. Social media can enable journalists and historians to connect with new audiences, promote a deeper critical engagement with the past, and enrich the understanding of Australian history.

Both projects have the potential to challenge Anzac mythology. For example, a recent @ABCNews1915 tweet from the diary of A.I.F private Sam Norris described how Australian and New Zealanders ransacked brothels and burnt furniture during the “Wazzir” riots.

By uncovering a range of conflicting views, social media has the potential to reveal the complexity of the wartime experience and encourage Australians to be more reflective. Furthermore, by encouraging readers to respond to posts, these platforms can create spaces where Australians can question, challenge and debate the Great War and the Anzac legend.

In fact, while both campaigns aspire to reveal ways in which the Diggers were “just like us”, they may inadvertently achieve the opposite, by exposing elements of the Anzac legend that are largely absent in the 21st century. Letters, diaries and newspaper reports from 1915 are likely to exult in the Anzacs’ fighting ability and reveal racial pride and a deep connection to the British Empire.

The diggers are talking but will anyone be listening? The failure of critically acclaimed Channel Nine miniseries Gallipoli to resonate with Australians, and an upcoming glut of arts events, television specials and documentaries have many within the “Anzac industry” concerned that Australians might have developed a bad case of “Anzac fatigue”.  Considering the significant investment into the medium, News Corp and ABC News will be hoping that social media can capture Australian imaginations.

(originally published on Crikey on 7 April 2015)